Science Fiction Studies

#98 = Volume 33, Part 1 = March 2006

Mark Bould and Sherryl Vint

Learning from the Little Engines That Couldn’t: Transported by Gernsback, Wells, and Latour

Everyone knows that, until one wins one, all awards are travesties. Even so, there is something unseemly about the fact that Bruno Latour’s Aramis or The Love of Technology was not nominated for a single sf award. Published in French in 1993 and in English in 1996, this novel occupies simultaneously the very center and the very edges of the genre. It offers ways for us to rethink what sf can do, and to reconsider our relationships to technology and the consequences of that for both subjects and objects. It is also a page-turner, a gripping whodunit, a cyborg and hybrid manifesto, and a profound meditation on the relationships linking science, science studies, and science fiction. It should have swept the board.

Aramis starts by announcing Latour’s aim of restoring “to literature the vast territories it should never have given up—namely, science and technology” (vii), while at the same time showing “technicians that they cannot conceive of a technological object without taking into account the mass of human beings with all their passions and politics and pitiful calculations” (viii). At the nexus of the two cultures, this rapprochement is attempted through a novel about a technological research project—the development of the eponymous public transport system in Paris1—that is also an academic work investigating the failure of this project. It moves between “science and technology” and the “passions and politics” of human beings, combining fictional characters (a professor, Norbert, more or less based on Latour, and his nameless student/assistant) with “real-life interviews” conducted by Latour, “genuine documents” collected in his fieldwork, and other “mysterious voices,” including passages from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus (1818) and even the voice of Aramis itself (x). For his “hybrid task,” Latour creates the “hybrid genre” of “scientifiction,” insisting that its various “discursive modes have to be kept separate” (x), distinguished by their presentation in clearly-headed sections and different typefaces.                

One should not mistake such separations as an insistence on monadic purity, however. Latour’s method here, as elsewhere, is more dialectical. In We Have Never Been Modern (1991), he argues that our understanding of science and the social world is based on a “modern Constitution” that separates politics from nature, subjects from objects, humans from nonhumans. For him, this is not only politically damaging but also just plain wrong. Tracing the emergence of these dichotomies to the seventeenth century, he observes that

At first sight … it seems that Hobbes and his disciples created the chief resources that are available to us for speaking about power (“representation,” “sovereign,” “contract,” “property,” “citizens”), while Boyle and his successors developed one of the major repertoires for speaking about nature (“experiment,” “fact,” “evidence,” “colleagues”). It should thus seem also clear that we are dealing not with two separate inventions but with only one, a division of power between the two protagonists, to Hobbes, the politics and to Boyle, the sciences. (We Have Never 24-25)

From this divide flows the modern epistemology, with its belief in progressive humanism, liberal democracy, capitalism, and scientific empiricism, that Latour aims to revolutionize.

He denies that his work about “the social construction of science.” Although he insists upon the vitality of the “social” world of human politics and personalities in the production of science, he is equally insistent upon a “real world” with which these people interact. He is as critical of postmodern­ism’s linguistic idealism, which places the material world beyond human reach, as he is of the modern drive toward separation and purification. His vision of science (and politics) is about shifting networks of connection, the building of collectives. Latour defines this replacement (of the modern/postmodern divide between nature and society with the notion of the collective) as nonmodern.                

Latour’s concepts of “translation” and “inscription” distinguish his work from more idealist or purely constructivist versions of science studies. These terms fill in the space left empty between subject and object when the material and the linguistic are deemed separate realms. His object of study is the frequent traffic across this fictitious divide. Pandora’s Hope: Essays on the Reality of Science Studies (1999) provides a detailed case study of how the heterogeneous world of things is translated into systems of signification through a study of how soil samples begin as physical collections of earth and are translated into tables and graphs representing features of soil across a territory. These processes trace a move from the concrete to the abstract, one that at each stage “allow[s] new translations and articulations while keeping some relations intact” (Pandora’s Hope 54). Latour insists, however, that, although these processes do involve social shaping, the resulting signification is not separate from the material world. Rather, the chain of translation is always reversible—we can move along it in either direction, toward the abstract or the concrete.                

Translation refers to more than just the modifications and mediations that connect the material world to its representation. For technology, translation also refers to the process by which a project “takes on reality, or loses it, by degrees” (Aramis 85) by “enrolling” various parties (machines, politicians, money, politics, “natural” objects) into its own goals. This process of translation requires negotiation and compromise. The “feasible” project is not the one based on the most “true” science but rather the one best able to form a rhizomatic network of connections with other human and nonhuman actants. Aramis, a detailed illustration of this argument, demonstrates how what Aramis “is” shifts over the course of its “life” depending upon the connections with other actants that it develops, maintains, or loses.2

Far beyond our understanding of the practice of science and the relationship between the material world and language, Latour’s concern that science and the social not be separated has deeply political consequences and implications for the practice of democracy. At the end of We Have Never Been Modern, Latour calls for a new nonmodern Constitution that will move beyond the modern separation of human and Nature to embrace the common production of societies and natures and the existence of hybrids who do not fall clearly into any of the epistemo-logical separations that structure modern thought. Latour’s rejection of the modern Constitution is political as well as epistemological because, as long as we do not recognize the role of translation in the production of science, the modern divide will always preserve a space of “truth” outside human struggles over meaning.                

Perhaps Latour’s most controversial idea—as well as the most intriguing for sf—is his insistence in Politics of Nature: How to Bring the Sciences into Democracy (1999) that we need to “add a series of new voices to the discussion … the voices of nonhumans” (69). In this vision of a new collective, Latour refuses the subject/object divide and instead envisions a space in which humans and nonhumans are networked together, all expressing desires and goals, all thought of as having agency. The genuine documents collected in Aramis repeatedly apply terms like “supervise” or “allow” or “notify” or “vote” to Aramis’s machine components. Another voice—perhaps the author’s—urges that we “not jump too quickly to conclusions as to whether these terms are metaphorical, exaggerated, anthropomorphic, or technical” (Aramis 61). Instead, all possibilities must remain in play, and we must refuse to “purify” our sense of the language and assign it (and these entities) to one realm or the other, real or literary.                

By following this example and engaging in the play between science fact, science fiction, and scientifiction, this essay engages with Aramis to explore what Latour might contribute to the study of sf and what sf might contribute to our understanding of Latour. We wonder whether sf’s commodity form suppresses the possibilities that lie between the literal and the literary. We worry about commodity fetishism and the tendency in Latour’s concept of actants (in which humans and nonhumans are elevated or reduced to the same stat­us—equivalized—in the new collective) to reduce humans in technology to labor power. Aramis itself speaks in Aramis, just as many nonhuman others speak in other sf, and so we weigh this speaking of the other in narrative, the speaking for the other that it inevitably entails and what it suggests about the politics of Latour’s new collective. Sf is one of the actants that “real life” technology might enroll, and Latour gives us new tools to think about this relationship between science and technology; understanding Latour may change our understanding of both science and sf.                

At one point in Aramis, Norbert tries to calm his student/assistant, who has lost patience with the relativism of their task of discovering “who killed Aramis” (2). The student wants a “real” answer about Aramis’s technological feasibility, not a lot of fuzzy speculation about politics and passions. Norbert tells him that “[s]tudying a technological project isn’t any harder than doing literary criticism. Aramis is one long sentence in which the words gradually change in response to internal contradictions imposed by the meaning. It’s only a text, a fabric” (102). Norbert’s “isn’t any harder than” is somewhat ambiguous, but we will nonetheless treat Aramis as Latour treats Aramis, as a literary text to be criticized, as well as quintessential sf. Our first step is to release Latour’s scientifiction into dialogue with the version proposed by Hugo Gernsback.                

Discussing the polytemporality of “every contemporary assembly,” Latour suggests that “Time is not a general framework but a provisional result of the connection between entities” (We Have Never 74). He then turns to an image familiar to anyone who has read more than a handful of the rationales found in time-travel stories—the idea of time as a spiral:

Let us suppose … that we are going to regroup the contemporary elements along a spiral rather than a line. We do have a future and a past, but the future takes the form of a circle expanding in all directions, and the past is not surpassed but revisited, repeated, surrounded, protected, recombined, reinterpreted and reshuffled. Elements that appear remote if we follow the spiral may turn out to be quite nearby if we compare loops. Conversely, elements that are quite contemporary, if we judge by the line, become quite remote if we traverse a spoke. Such a temporality does not oblige us to use the labels “archaic” or “advanced,” since every cohort of contemporary elements may bring together elements from all times. (75)

At several points, Aramis alludes to Shelley’s Frankenstein and Samuel Butler’s Erewhon, or Over the Range (1872), texts brought close by the polytemporality of spiral-time. The more provocative bringing-together, however, is Latour’s coinage of “scientifiction,” unaware as he seems to be of the earlier term used to describe the kinds of fiction published in Amazing Stories. While Gernsback defined scientifiction as “the Jules Verne, H.G. Wells, and Edgar Allan Poe type of story—a charming romance intermingled with scientific fact and prophetic vision” (qtd in Westfahl 70), Latour, deeming science fiction “inadequate, since such writing usually draws upon technology for setting rather than plot” (Aramis viii), ponders what genre would be capable of “bringing about this fusion of two so clearly separated universes, that of culture and that of technology, as well as the fusion of three entirely distinct literary genres—the novel, the bureaucratic dossier, and the sociological commentary” (viii); he thus devises his hybrid scientifiction.                

Coined nearly seventy years apart, these scientifictions are proximate. Both postulate hybrid monstrosities and conjure allies (Verne, Wells, Poe; Shelley, Butler). Both fuse separate realms (fiction/science; culture/technology) and distinct genres (romance, fact, vision; novel, bureaucratic dossier, sociological commentary). Moreover, these not-exactly synonymous terms do overlap. Latour’s “novel” is more sophisticated than Gernsback’s “romance,” certainly, but both are prose fictions. And if Gernsback’s “‘scientific fact’ meant lengthy and detailed explanations of current scientific knowledge and discoveries, equivalent to those found in science textbooks and articles” (Westfahl 39), the discursive register of this component has clear affinities with Latour’s bureaucratic dossier. Furthermore, while Gernsback’s prophetic visions—“descriptions and explanations of hypothetical inventions and scientific processes” (Westfahl 39)—might coincide with sociological commentary (itself hypothetical and, at least, scientistic), Westfahl’s exegesis of the term also describes Latour’s project in Aramis:

prophecy … itself combines fact and fiction in that, on the one hand, a scientifically grounded prediction of a future discovery might be substantive enough to warrant a patent, so that [Gernsback] once spoke of “true or prophetic science” as if both accounts of current information and informed speculations about the future could be considered types of science. On the other hand, a predicted invention, even if logical or inevitable, cannot be a fact until it is realized; in a different sense of the word, such a description is a “fiction.” (39-40)

Latour argues that “by definition, a technological project is a fiction, since at the outset it does not exist” (Aramis 23), and that the project will gain or lose reality depending on whether it is capable of recruiting sufficient and suitable actors into its network and retaining them. Aramis, like all such projects, is a “fiction seeking to come true” (18-9). There is a clear sense of Gernsbackian prophecy in the description of Aramis’s “inventors”:

They invent a means of transportation that does not exist, paper passengers, opportunities that have to be created, places to be designed (often from scratch), component industries, technological revolutions. They’re novelists. With just one difference: their project—which is at first indistinguishable from a novel—will gradually veer in one direction or another. Either it will remain a project in the file drawers … or else it will be transformed into an object. (24)

Finally, both scientifictions retain their hybridity. Aramis’s preface not only describes the various elements of which the book is composed but also insists on their clear demarcation, while Westfahl argues that Gernsback’s “intermingling” did not go so far as to integrate “scientific fact” seamlessly into the narrative flow but rather kept them as distinct passages. These shifts of discursive register are evident in Gernsback’s own novel Ralph 124C 41+: A Romance of the Year 2660 (1911-12; revised fixup 1925); as an editor “he spoke of information being ‘contained’ in the narrative … and their separability from the narrative text was indicated in his ‘opinion’ that ‘the ideal proportion of a scientifiction story should be seventy-five per cent literature interwoven with twenty-five per cent science’” (Westfahl, quoting Gernsback, 39). The Heinlein/Campbell revolution sought to purify Gernsbackian scientifiction by homogenizing its discursive mode and driving out lengthy passages of exposition, which were condemned as infodumps. Ironically enough, this move created hard sf, a hybrid form retaining as one of its components an expository discursive mode that it must also always try to expunge, as well as such hybrids as science fantasy, fantasy, and, although it could never then admit it, hegemonic sf itself. Just as slipstream and the New Weird (and gap fiction, interstitial fiction, post-genre sf, etc.) recover the hybrids created by generic purification (see Bould), so Latour’s scientifiction recuperates, albeit unwittingly, the hybrid form that Gernsback stitched together.                

But while the circling of spiral-time brings these scientifictions closer, linear time drives them apart. Nowhere is this clearer than in the different ways in which Ralph and Aramis conceive of and represent technology. In Aramis’s Epilogue, Norbert proposes a still more radical book than Latour’s, telling his student that

“I’d like to do a book in which there’s no metalanguage, no master discourse, where you wouldn’t know which is strongest, the sociological theory or the documents or the interviews or the literature or the fiction, where all these genres or regimes would be at the same level, each one interpreting the others without anybody being able to say which is judging what.” (Aramis 298)

Admittedly, it could be argued that this is precisely what Aramis does, and that to see Norbert’s commentary on the investigation, documents, and interviews as the text’s metalanguage is to misread it. Yet Latour’s ambition to reconcile humanists and technologists through a conceptualization of technology as fully a part of the human social realm indicates a vision of the scientifictional text as one in which all discursive elements are held in flux, complexly, dynamically, and irresolvably interacting. This is in stark contrast to Gernsback’s scientifiction, in which the text alternates statically among romance, scientific fact, and prophetic vision. In Ralph, this alternation follows a generally straightforward pattern. Ralph and Alice tour future New York (vision), Ralph explains the science behind the marvels (fact), and they are linked by this odd courtship and the abductions and rescues it prompts (romance). Such textual discontinua make Gernsback’s scientifiction a clumsy collision of “scientific” and “fiction,” even as the absence of visual markings to separate these elements opens the door to the Campbell/Heinlein hegemonization of narrative discourse. In contrast, Latour’s marked discontinua tend to keep in play the elements thus separated, not least because of the tension created between the reader’s desire to hierarchize and subsume the elements into a single discourse and to discern and order the textual elements in relation to the text’s metalanguage. The very artificiality of Aramis’s separations reinforces Latour’s insistence that the social is always already in the science, that they cannot be separated out into 75% to 25% proportions, in fiction any more than in life.                

Campbellian sf writers do what the scientist cannot do, namely “explor[e] the ‘consequences’ of scientific innovations in human society,” thus shifting sf’s function from inspiration to criticism, providing a “valuable independent outlook” that could be “an important factor in improving—and controlling—scientific progress” (Westafhl 194, 195). Campbell ascribed a dual function to sf—“to indicate wrong answers, and why they’re wrong, as well as suggesting right answers and possibilities” (195)—making the Gernsbackian “romance” an engagement with science rather than the scientific pill’s sugar-coating. While Gernsback imagined the scientist who “gets the stimulus from the story and promptly responds with the material invention” (42), Campbell pictured a scientist or policymaker who “would eagerly consult texts, looking for ideas and ramifications of ideas that could shape research strategies and policy decisions” (277). Despite Gernsbackian resonances, then, Latour’s scientifiction shares with Campbellian sf a foregrounding of the interconnection of science and social world through its countering of the pernicious modern epistemological separation of fact-based science and value-based culture—a separation whose goal is to “short-circuit any and all questioning as to the nature of the complex bonds between the sciences and societies” (Latour, Politics 13; emphasis in original)

Latour’s scientifictional textuality enacts his desire to enable “scientific worlds [to] become once again what they had been: possible worlds in conflict that move and shape one another” (Aramis ix). Seeing the world as unfixed and in process ensures that Latour’s scientifiction uses technology as plot rather than mere setting. As possibilities fizz between textual elements and within them (as when the motor, the chip, the chassis, the optical sensor, the central control panel, and the base computer—components of the as-yet unrealized Aramis—squabble about their respective needs and priorities), multiple versions of the project co-exist in the spaces created by the various actants’ differing ideas of Aramis, which constantly change over time and in relation to other actants. Aramis emerges—or, rather, ultimately does not emerge—from the plethora of possible Aramises and the actants’ negotiations among them. As these negotiations knot and reknot over twenty-four years, the “pure” Aramis, the “first Aramis, the one that could do everything,” came “to be called nominal, while the series of altered and compromised Aramises is referred to as the simplified Aramis, or the degraded Aramis, or the VS (for very simplified) Aramis” (Aramis 100). A footnote remarks that “‘Nominal’ here means in conformity with the original function. The dictionary offers other, more conventional definitions that fit Aramis better—e.g., ‘existing in name only, not in reality’” (100). The nominal Aramis is then both the “one that could do everything” and the one that does not—could not—exist. During the quarter century in which the nominal Aramis struggles to take on reality by enlisting actants into its network, by translating, by “accumulating little solidities, little durabilities, little resistances” (45), it constantly flickers between differing identities, constantly negotiating, becoming, without essence—like the train at the end of China Miéville’s Iron Council (2004), suspended in that moment, as in all moments, between arrival and non-arrival, between successful revolution and failed revolution, between all the possible meanings of these terms. That is the moment, the incompletion—ever—of the project.                

The world of Aramis is very different from that of Ralph. The latter is essentially static, fixed, non-negotiable. A solitary genius, Ralph’s many inventions and discoveries are conjured in the absence of society: “He had but to ask and his wish was law—if it did not interfere with his work” (Gernsback35). When he has to generate tremendous energies and transmit them from his tower in New York to Switzerland to melt the avalanche threatening Alice, he sounds a siren

which could be heard within a radius of sixty miles, sounding its warning to all to keep away from tall steel or metal structures, or, if they could not do this, to insulate themselves. He sounded the siren twice for ten seconds, which meant that he would direct his ultra-power for at least twenty minutes, and everybody must be on guard for this length of time. (Gernsback 22)

As this mighty phallic ejaculation indicates, Ralph’s prioritization is absolute. His interactions with the social are minimized and there is never any sense of his work being generated from anywhere other than his own will. Gernsback fails to perceive that “[a] technology isn’t one single character; it’s a city, it’s a collective, it’s countless. All of Germany and Switzerland together would have been needed to keep Victor [Frankenstein]’s awkwardly stitched together creature in existence” (Aramis 227). As pointedly demonstrated by the hundreds of thousands of Ralph’s admirers who gather—virtually—in his transmission room to applaud his rescue of Alice from the avalanche, the people of 2660 exist merely as an audience for Ralph’s accomplishments.3                

Ralph’s asociality manifests the modern Constitution’s separation of science from human struggles, which relates science to a “true” and fixed “house of nature” rather than the fluctuating and relative “house of politics.” Under this Constitution, one house, nature, has authority and does not speak (separated from human relativism, nature is “real” and “true” but unable to speak except through the scientist), while the other house, politics, has speech but no authority (humans can argue about political arrangements, but there is no certain ground upon which absolutely to elevate one position over another). The scientist has undue power and a voice that silences others because of “his” unique ability to “go back and forth from one world to the other no matter what: the passageway closed to all others is open to him alone” (Latour, Politics 11; emphasis in original), “render[ing] all democracy impossible by neutralizing it” (14). “He” can close down all other voices participating in the formation of the common world by invoking “his” privileged knowledge of nature. Ralph is conceived in this technocratic mode, and his world is one “whose furnishings have been already defined” (Latour, Politics 47). When technological projects are described in Ralph, they are generally already accomplished, fixed in place, leaving the world of the novel unavailable for anything other than often tedious description. It is not a world in process. New York is already paved over with perfectly uniform steelonium slabs lined with posts to transmit current to those skating by on their Tele-motor-coasters.

Each sidewalk was divided into two parts. On the outside only people going in one direction, on the inside only people going in the opposite direction could coast. Collisions, therefore, were impossible. If a person rolling on the outside wished to enter a store, it was necessary to go to the end of the block, and then turn to the left, which brought him on the inside of the sidewalk where he could roll up to his destination. (Gernsback 81)

Leaving aside the problem of what happens at intersections when lateral traffic is encountered, it is significant that New Yorkers’ behavior is never less than orderly. In contrast, Aramis repeatedly draws attention to the distinctions between the “paper” people imagined by different actants as the project is being translated. In an imaginary 1965 Senate hearing about a PRT system for Los Angeles, an engineer describes the following scenario:

When some old lady—a housewife, let’s say—wants to go downtown, she fiddles with her keyboard. The computer calculates the best route. It says, “I’ll be there in two minutes”; it’s like a taxi. But it’s a collective taxi, with no driver, and it’s guided by computer. When it arrives, the old lady finds it’s carrying a few of her cronies whom the computer has decided to put in the same cab. There’s no need for a second car. (Aramis 20; emphasis in original)

Senator Wallace objects:

What if instead of finding her “cronies” in this closed car with no driver, your housewife runs into a couple of thugs? (I didn’t say “blacks”—be sure to get that straight.) Then what does she do? What happens to her then? I’ll tell you what happens, she gets raped! And the rapist has all the time in the world, in this automated shell of yours with no doors and no windows. You know what you’ve invented? You’ve invented the rape wagon! (Aramis 21; emphasis in original)

Part of Aramis’s failure to become real derives from the failure of engineers (whose paper people would be delighted to give up the relative privacy and safety of privately-owned cars in exchange for relative convenience, less pollution, and no traffic jams) to negotiate with, among other things, the security offered by the anonymity of the larger shared spaces of buses and trains. Moreover, they fail to negotiate between the nominal Aramis and a version of it that is fool-, vandal-, and little-old-lady-proof.                

Equally as unconvincing as 2660’s steelonium-and-skates solution to urban transport is Gernsback’s Packet-Post Conveyor, an absurdly complicated, mostly subterranean, automatic delivery system interconnecting businesses and homes, which seems to have been constructed without any disturbance to the smooth running of the city. In short, in contrast to the world in which Aramis flickers between nominalities, Ralph’s world is not dynamically becoming but already become, completed, done.4 Nominal systems have always already concretized, their essence somehow preceding their existence.5 But “[t]o translate is to betray”:

If all the actors had to agree unambiguously on the definition of what was to be done, then the probability of carrying out a project would be very slight indeed, for reality remains polymorphous for a very long time.… The only way to increase a project’s reality is to compromise, to accept sociotechnological compromises. (Aramis 48, 99).

Even Aramis itself is prepared to compromise, to become something other than the nominal Aramis in exchange for not being merely nominal: “I would have been happy to be something, in the end, anything at all” (294; emphasis in original). Ralph, however, is beyond compromise. Moreover, as Roger Luckhurst has suggested of Thomas Edison’s carefully fostered image, the genius-inventor is an ideological displacement of the real-world replacement of artisan-inventors by the mass production of commodity-innovations, with Ralph indicative of “a much more messianic role [being] imagined for the engineer” (61), a role later modulated through technocratic discourses of expertise, such as those championed in Heinlein’s “The Roads Must Roll” (1940; see Mendlesohn).

The conservatism of technocratic sf is ultimately as much about the terror of innovation as those countless gadget stories from the first half of the twentieth century in which a solitary genius creates a marvelous device that is nonetheless destroyed before it can have social consequences. Indeed, this conservatism is intrinsic to the extrapolative method of those kinds of sf that postulate an innovation and attempt to think through its consequences ceteris paribus, as well as to the even more numerous sf texts that use sf furniture but leave contemporary social relations intact, from the priggish inhabitants of the final Everytown in the film Things to Come (1936) and the newspapermen of Asimov’s “Nightfall” (1941) to the corporate yes-men and team-players of Star Trek: The Next Generation (1987-94) and the drearily suburban family of A.I.—Artificial Intelligence (2001).                

A particularly instructive text in this regard was published exactly a century before Aramis finally died: H.G. Wells’s first story, “A Tale of the Twentieth Century for Advanced Thinkers.” Published in the Science Schools Journal in May 1887, it begins by killing off the solitary genius: “The Inventor had died in a garret. Too proud to receive parish relief, he had eaten every article of clothing he possessed, scraped off and assimilated every scrap of plaster on the walls of his wretched apartment, gnawed his finger nails down the quick, and—died” (697). Isolated from his fellows, his garret looking backwards to the artisan-inventor, he consumes what little he has and then himself, but “though the Inventor was dead, the Thought was not” (697). Among his pawned patents is the design for a revolutionary locomotive, and a limited company is formed to exploit it. Unlike Gernsback, who fantasizes a heroic technocrat, Wells establishes the autonomous existence of the thought as something divorced from its inventor, something operating in the social realm, negotiating human and nonhuman actants into the network necessary for its own realization. Its first recruit is the Inventor’s pawnbroker, who “took the underground railway, the idea, numerous influential persons, and a prospectus, and mixed them up judiciously, so that the influential persons became identified with the prospectus. Scrip was then issued, and the whole conception crystallized out as a definite tangible thing” (697). Aramis’sscientifically-trained graduate student struggles with the proposition that a scientific project’s feasibility is not an attribute of the “Thought” itself but is contingent on such “external” political and economic factors. Reluctant to look beyond the technological reports, he complains that, “I wasn’t used to making subtle distinctions between technical feasibility and ‘official versions’ of what is feasible or not” (Aramis 6). In contrast to his student (and Gernsback), the Wellsian Norbert insists that Aramis’s death also has something to do with the French election of 1986 and with a former general inspector of finance’s replacement of an expert in marketing and public relations as the president of RATP (7-8).6                 I

In Wells’s story, a banquet is held on July 19, 1999 to celebrate the “definite tangible” new Metropolitan and District Line:

There were 19 Bishops in evening dress, 4 Princes and their interpreters, 12 Dukes, A Strong-Minded Female, the PRA, 14 popular professors, 1 learned ditto, 70 Deans (assorted), the President of the Materialistic Religious Society, a popular low comedian, 1604 eminent wholesale and retail drapers, hatters, grocers, and tea dealers, a reformed working man MP, and honorary directors of well nigh the universe, 203 stockbrokers, 1 Earl (in a prominent place), who had once said a remarkably smart thing, 9 purely Piccadilly Earls, 13 sporting Earls, 17 trading ditto, 113 bankers, a forger, 1 doctor, 12 theatrical managers, Bludsole the mammoth novelist, 1 electrician (from Paris), a multitude no man could number of electrical company directors, their sons and their sons’ sons, their cousins, their nephews, their uncles, their parents, and their friends, the leading legal stars, 2 advertisement contractors, 41 patent medicine manufacturers, Lords, Senators, a Spirit Raiser, a Soothsayer, foreign Musicians, Officers, Captains, Guards, &c. (698)

As this company dine, the “representative passengers” entrain:

There were an August person, his keeper, the Premier, two Bishops, several popular actresses, four generals (home department), various exotics, a person apparently connected with the navy, the Education Minister, 124 public service parasites, an idiot, the President of the Board of Trade, a suit of clothes, bankers, another idiot, shopkeepers, forgers, scene painters, still another idiot, directors, &c. (as per previous sample). (699)

The mild social satire of these comic catalogues, which comprise an eighth of the story, might leave 1880s society unchanged a century later but they also demonstrate two things: Wells not only conceived of technology as happening within a social milieu, but also acknowledged some very specific actants—politi­cians, bankers, and so on—beyond the realm of nature with which the technological project must negotiate. These are not the only actants involved in the realization of the new tube line. Later, “the scientific manager (a small and voluble mechanism)” explains that the components of the train are “of English manufacture,” made by “the great firm of Schulz and Brown of Pekin (they removed there in 1920 in order to obtain cheap labour)” (699), extending the train’s network of actants to include unemployed British engineering workers as well as the cheaper Chinese labor that has replaced them and the global communications and transportation systems necessary for their profitable exploitation. Although their relationships to the train might seem as tenuous as those of the listed attendees, they indicate, whether present or absent, the extent to which a technological project must negotiate and recruit actants into a network in order to become real.               

Regarding this complex interlocking of disparate interests, Norbert observes that,

[i]f you map out all the interests involved in a project, the vague or even reticent interests of those who are pursuing some other Aramis have to be counted as well. They are allies. Obviously, such allies are neither very convinced nor very convincing.… The full difficulty of innovation becomes apparent when we recognize that it brings together, in one place, on a joint undertaking, a number of interested people, a good half of whom are prepared to jump ship, and an array of things, most of which are about to break down. (Aramis 49, 58)

The negotiations that transform the nominal “locomotive of a new type” (Wells 697) into the revolutionary Metropolitan and District Line train, however, have inevitably altered its design—and now it cannot be stopped. It “whirls[s] round the circle with ever-increasing velocity” until it eventually leaves the rails, crashes, and explodes: “Most of the passengers were utterly destroyed. The august person, however, came down all right in Germany. The commercial speculators descended in foreign regions in the form of blight” (Wells 700). Catastrophe brings innovation to an end before it can have consequences for the world, a conservatism attested to by a punchline that, although pleasing, reinstates an unchanged world.                

While this conclusion is tied to the form and brevity of Wells’s tale, those formal constraints (which are equally commercial ones) are nonetheless instructive about sf’s general failure to represent the complexity of innovation. The thriller format that predominates in sf tales of technological projects requires the reduction of complex networks of actants to various readily identifiable—and usually human—heroes, villains, bureaucrats and politicians, place-holders and talking heads, whose relative lack of depth tends to leave them incapable of acting as either realistic or representative actants. This happens to a significant degree even in that most accomplished story of a complex, innovatory technological project, Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars trilogy (1992-1996)—although it does at times come close to Latour’s model, tracing negotiations about terraforming and political systems as they develop, intermingle, and compromise; and, more significantly, allowing the very landscape to become a powerful actant with which all others must negotiate.                

The overtly political and ecological concerns in which Robinson embeds Martian terraforming resonate strongly with Latour’s determination to rethink the modern relationship between science and society so as to remove the scientist’s undue ability to limit debate through “his” privileged knowledge of nature. For Latour, even catastrophe cannot end innovation before it has consequences because the (inseparable) practice of science and politics is always in the process of producing a changing world. Defining politics as “the entire set of tasks that allow the progressive composition of a common world” (Politics 53; emphasis in original), his nonmodern Constitution argues for a new pair of houses: rather than separating nature from politics, the house of “taking into account” asks “how many are we?” and the house of “putting into order” asks “can we live together?” Through gathering together actants into this nonmodern collective, a new common world will be created.                

Latour distinguishes “collective,” which “refers not to an already-established unit but to a procedure for collecting associations of humans and nonhumans,” from “society” (a term he rejects), which designates an “already-constituted whole that explains human behavior and thus makes it possible to short-circuit the political task of composition” (Politics 238, 249; emphasis in original). Latour sees the never-completed, open-ended task of making the common world as the shared practice of science and politics, activities no longer to be separated but which, under the nonmodern Constitution, should jointly discover how we “go about getting those in whose name we speak to speak for themselves” (Politics 70; emphasis in original). Although Latour clearly understands the problems of reconciling the concerns of human society with the needs of other beings with whom we share our planet, he struggles to provide solutions. Aramis shows how various “stakeholders” in the project represent the needs of human and nonhuman components (the passengers, the politicians, the switching mechanism, the unemployed transport workers), but it gives no clues as to how the collective-in-formation establishes hierarchy among its many voices (including those deemed external to it) or transforms its fluid self into “institution.” Strong on “taking into account,” it neglects “putting into order.”               

Although the collective is never finished or fixed, Latour recognizes that most collectives try to present themselves as such and to maintain their current form. “Institution” is what “makes it possible to respond to the requirement of closure and to prepare the re-collection of the collective as it goes through the next loop” (Politics 243). Roughly corresponding to Antonio Gramsci’s theory of the political hegemony of the dominant class, a particularly ideological configuration of reality, it is nonetheless troubled by those interests that remain external(ized) and thus not counted in the collective’s “how many.” This comparison with Gramsci reveals a serious limitation in Latour, whose participatory-democratic model, presuming a (non-existent) equality of voices, lacks any theory of power. External(ized) entities appear as “appellants,” continually knocking on the door of the current iteration. Latour considers these appellants to be relatively powerful because if heard and then counted, they shift the entire collective: “In the new Constitution, what has been externalized can appeal and come back to knock at the door of the collective to demand that it be taken into account—at the price, of course, of modifications in the list of entities present, new negotiations, and a new definition of the outside” (Politics 125; emphases in original). Yet the “real” case study of Aramis shows the struggle for hegemony to be much more powerful than the attempt to build any collective: “The interpretations offered by the relativist actors are performatives. They prove themselves by transforming the world in conformity with their perspective on the world. By stabilizing their interpretation, the actors end up creating a world-for-others that strongly resembles an absolute world with fixed reference points” (Aramis 194-95; emphasis in original). These actors are uninterested in the appellants knocking on their doors.7                

Latour’s metaphors, drawn from the courts system and representative, bicameral democracy, reveal the degree to which his thought remains trapped in bourgeois assumptions and values, falsely rendering equivalent all people and all things. He imagines the collective being formed among the relative representation of various propositions enacted by scientists (who measure and test the material world), politicians (who understand compromise and human factors), economists (whose expertise is valuable for calculating and modeling), and moralists (who refuse to let us forget those appellants at the door), but he offers no theory of how they speak among themselves or negotiate the serious power gaps among them.

Latour argues that he is not extending “the formalism of social democracy to objects” but rather the “consulting” of the material world that happens through the experimental procedures that make the material world speak (see his Science in Action [1987] and Laboratory Life [1979]). He characterizes such consultation as more reliable than the assumption of “survey specialists, sociobiologists, journalists, and statisticians” that because humans are endowed with speech, “one can speak of them in their place” (Politics 170). Consultation provides “the risky experimental apparatus that would allow them to delineate their own problems themselves instead of simply answering the questions asked” (171; emphasis in original). However, Latour does not imagine how one might “experiment” upon humans to find out such data nor that we might expect different and more complex things of humans than of other propositions in the collective. When Aramis’s automated systems displace human drivers, the negotiation results in the decision that “[w]e won’t keep the humans’ physical presence, their uniforms or their outspokenness; but we’ll keep some of their knowledge, their abilities, their knowhow” (Aramis 62; emphasis in original).  

When it comes to “consulting with” the natural world, Latour envisions actants’ properties as relevant only insofar as they pertain to the question at hand, just as human drivers are reduced to their knowhow, their intellectual labor power. The design of Aramis, for example, must negotiate the speeds at which the cars might collide with one another as they link up to form a train with the rate of impact that the human bodies of passengers aboard these cars can withstand. The human needs here are an obstacle to the efficient functioning of the system and thus human needs, although factored in, are not considered paramount. Instead, “humans are being treated as objects that do or do not resist shocks, while nonhumans are granted knowledge, rights, a vote, and even refreshments” (225). The humans appear to be in place for the system to demonstrate the brilliance of its nonmaterial couplings more than the system exists to supply transportation to the humans. In this particular collective, humans have a “voice” that is limited to this capacity only—they are small but not voluble mechanisms.8                

This reduction of humans to singular, pertinent capacities becomes more distressing when the “voice” of displaced workers is made equivalent to that of the automated system, which “is demanding as well—not about retirement and Social Security, but about distance sensors, orders and counterorders, if we decide to put it on board; about transmission, road markers, information and speed, if we set it up at the command centre” (62). The calculations by which the collective that produces Aramis is configured do not consider human suffering as a consequence of excluding workers’ voices. The system’s needs become as, if not more, important (because able to gain more allies) than those of the workers it displaces. By making this visible to us, Aramis allows us to see our social reality more clearly—to see that politicians are more motivated by the “needs” of a system that can be marketed at world’s fairs and fit into their self-perception as modern and innovative, and so on, than they are moved by the needs of workers—and thus the book fills an undertheorized gap in Latour’s more strictly political work by acknowledging how many and which voices are “presented” in representative democracy.                

Although Aramis only considers the question of how a particular technology fails to become real, this nonetheless points to a serious limitation in Latour’s plan to use science studies as a model “to reinvent shared forms of public life” (Politics 18). The sense of “how many are we?” proposed in Politics of Nature does leave space for a wider consideration of human voices, of the workers’ families, their suffering beyond just loss of income, the rise in crime that accompanies poverty, and so on. Yet beyond urging that we take as many voices as are “relevant” into account, Latour offers no suggestions as to how to do so or even how—or by whom—“relevance” is to be adjudicated. Ever in the process of becoming, this model of politics has no ideal—such as human freedom—toward which to direct its configuration; and there is no provision for human needs to be automatically considered a goal of whatever collective emerges. This has serious implications for its efficacy as a politics. In every collective, there must be criteria for the “putting into order,” but all that Latour suggests is “from the friendliest to the most hostile” (177). By refusing to privilege human happiness, or anything else, as the goal by which the collective might be ordered, Latour renders such assessments impossible.               

When a new entity knocks at the collective’s door, “[t]he entire collective has to ask itself whether it can cohabit with so-and-so, and at what price; the entire collective has to enquire into the trials that will allow it to decide whether it is right or wrong to carry out that addition or subtraction” (Politics 196). Although Latour’s political theory offers no model of how this might happen, he is confident that “the miracle [can be] produced and the impossible harmony among incommensurables [can be] discovered—not because the right compromise has been made, but because the nature of the ‘we’ with which each one had chosen to identify has been changed” (176). Aramis fails to live, however, because, as it says to those with whom it negotiated its existence, “you didn’t love me. You loved me as an idea. You loved me as long as I was vague. The proof is that you didn’t even agree as to whether I am possible in principle, whether my essence does or does not imply my existence” (Aramis 294; emphasis in original). If those actants could not arrive at an inclusive “we,” what hope does a larger political collective have of doing so?9                

Aramis’s failure to exist and Latour’s to offer sufficiently concrete models of how collectives under the new constitution might “ensure that the number of voices that participate in the articulation of propositions has not been arbitrarily short-circuited” (Politics 106; emphasis in original) suggests a place where sf might contribute to our understanding of Latour. In his scientifiction, the processes of “putting into order” are negotiated and the role of power is made visible—setting the criteria for hierarchization, determining which voices become appellants to rather than members of the collective—as Aramis demonstrates that all ceteris paribus assumptions are fallacious, that all other things are not equal when voices appeal to the collective. Latour suggests that “[t]o limit the discussion to humans, their interests, their subjectivities, and their rights, will appear as strange a few years from now as having denied the right to vote of slaves, poor people, or women” (Politics 69). Although our sense of the common world must extend beyond only human interests, it is nonetheless disturbing to find that the voices of women, the impoverished, and slaves count for nothing more than those of innovative motors and automated switching relays. In Aramis, the relative power of those representing their respective voices means that the automated system is to participate in the collective world-with-Aramis in a way that the workers who once drove the trains are not. Without understanding power, the nonmodern Constitution, the open and always-becoming and goal-less collective, does not offer possibilities for a sufficiently better future.10                

The idea of the nonmodern Constitution, however, combined with Aramis’s narrative mode, does enable us better to understand the limitations of the modern Constitution, to think about ways that our politics might take account of nonhuman voices, and also to see the potential consequences of lacking a clear vision of what we value in our collective. Latour outlines how the complex material world is translated into representational units that codify it and shape a particular way of understanding it. As with political representation, this scientific representation produces a map that is not unrelated to the territory; there is a continuum rather than a rupture between the material and the discursive, but as long as science is taken to be “true,” the map is mistaken for the territory and everything “real” but not in the representational system drops out of view. The processes of representing humans are as selective and potentially distorting as the processes of transforming nature into scientific semiotics, and thus while the human needs of the workers disappear, other presentations of human needs, such as little old ladies’ fears of rapists, gain determinate substance.                

Yet we might also see in Aramis—and in Latour’s limited ability to theorize a new collective—a truth about life within a system uninterested in humans as anything other than subjects of capital (labor power and consumers). Reading Aramis, we find “our machines are disturbingly lively, and we ourselves frighteningly inert” (Haraway 152). Aramis itself criticizes the author of Aramis:

I find your characters one-dimensional.… They’re just ideas, words on paper. They have to be animated; you have to make them move, give them depth and consistency. More than anything, they have to be autonomous … they’re so rigid! They’d pass for puppets. Look at that one: he has no personality, he doesn’t know where he is, or what time it is, or where he’s supposed to go, or whom he’s supposed to meet. You have to tell him everything: “Go forward, go back, come closer, turn right, turn left, open the door, go ahead, watch out.” Your characters are just sacks of potatoes. Give them a little breathing space, a little autonomy. Make them cars with minds of their own.… it’s not enough to treat characters as vehicles for your projects … breathe some life into your anemic paper figures. (55; emphasis in original)

It is unclear whether Aramis is referring to human or nonhuman characters/actants, and this blurring in which characters might “come alive” recalls the engineer’s talking about Aramis’s “autonomous” cars and components “supervising,” “allowing,” “notifying,” and “voting.” Moreover, the equalization it implies recalls Marx’s description of the commodity and commodity fetishism:

As soon as [a table, for example] emerges as a commodity, it changes into a thing which transcends sensuousness. It not only stands with its feet on the ground, but, in relation to all other commodities, it stands on its head, and evolves out of its wooden brain grotesque ideas far more wonderful than if it were to begin to dance of its own free will.… The mysterious character of the commodity-form consists … simply in the fact that the commodity reflects the social characteristics of men’s own labour as objective characteristics of the products of labour themselves.… In order … to find an analogy we must take flight into the misty realm of religion [where] the products of the human brain appear as autonomous figures endowed with a life of their own, which enter into relations both with each other and with the human race. So it is in the world of commodities with the products of men’s hands (163-64, 165).

Even Norbert’s student comes to identify with Aramis, telling us,

“I was becoming the Aramis mobile unit. I understood how it worked and, like it, I was taking on confidence and personality. I no longer wanted to be a lowly student constantly lorded over by his mentor-master. Norbert had been living on my labor for a year, and I no longer needed his gratitude. I was the one, now, who was dictating my own technological choices. I had fought hard to win the right to recognise myself as autonomous. I was no longer afraid.” (Aramis 236)

The student gains agency by becoming machine-like, by representing his needs as congruent with those of the machine. This perhaps points toward the truth of living as subjects of capital: that there are not “two lists, one of human capabilities and one of mechanical capabilities” (226) as long as our collective sees nothing more to humans than our “relevant” mechanical capacities and conceives of humans as only labor power and consumers. Our collective is, like Aramis (and the Iron Council’s train), flickering among different identities, constantly negotiating, without essence, becoming, always incomplete—but it is not enough to be in motion: this train also needs a destination, even if it can never be reached.  

And it is perhaps scientifiction—which includes a bit of “charming romance” in its presentation of technological wonders, which provides more fully-realized settings in which nonhuman actants speak, that enables us to think through the consequences of couplings drowning out human voices—that will allow us appellants to knock on the door, gain entry to, and revolutionize the collective.

               1. Aramis is the acronym for Agencement en Rames Automatisées de Modules Indépendants dans les Stations (arrangement in automated trains of independent modules in stations). Aramis is a Personal Rapid Transit (PRT) system consisting of a network of lines and frequent stations on which run small individual cars containing a handful of passengers. Each car operates autonomously, but on busier lines would group up with other cars to form train-like vehicles with non-mechanical couplings: “each car is separate. Nothing visible links it to the ones behind: no couplings, no cable, no wire, no linkage of any sort. And yet the cars form a train; they approach one another and merge ever so gently. They stay together as if by magic. An electronic calculation attaches them together more solidly than any cable” (Aramis 22-23; emphasis in original). When these “trains” approach a station, those cars that need to stop there decouple and take a sideline to the platform while the other cars regroup and continue on without even slowing: “the rest of the train reconstitutes itself and goes on.… No one needs to change trains! No more transfers between lines! ” (23, emphasis in original).
                2. Although we are unable to go into this here, Latour’s conceptualization of technological projects detailed in Aramis and elsewhere offers a valuable model for rethinking the nature of genre and how we might tell the history of sf, that complex, incomplete, and always still becoming project.
                3. A rather different version of the monadic inventor of solipsistic technologies—of the same vintage as Ralph but with whom one might more reasonably expect Latour to be familiar—is Canterel from Raymond Roussel’s Locus Solus (1914), itself a veritable casebook of separations producing hybrids (especially the second chapter, featuring the paving-beetle).
                4. In a world in which all food is liquified so as to avoid chewing and sports are played under floodlights at night to as to prevent changes in sunlight affording either team an advantage, in a New York so utterly uniform and static, one cannot help but suspect that Ralph’s claim that “[t]he tubes are even now extended almost daily to keep pace with the growth of the city” (Gernsback 112) is a lie intended to impress the girl.
                 5. Admittedly, though, their now apparent absurdity makes them seem like compromised systems, far from any notion of optimal functioning, which have become ordinary and thus invisible to their users.
                6. The Régie Autonome des Transports Parisiens is the agency responsible for Paris’s subways and buses.
                7. For an eye-opening materialist-linguistic “thick” description of a state-organized “consultation” process, with a clear sense of the operations of power within it, see Collins (181-260).
                8. Other human voices figure in other possible Aramises and Aramis calculations, such as preferences for car size or concerns about pollution and gridlock that might lead to the decision to use public transport. At no point, however, does the idea of a “full human being” appear.
                9. Latour’s naïveté—or, more charitably, optimism—about the power of negotiation and compromise is even clearer in his pamphlet War of the Worlds: What about Peace? (2002), in which he suggests that the modern Constitution’s division between relative, multiple cultures and a single, “real” nature is the root of current conflicts between the West and other nations, with the modernized West appropriating the power of the scientist to speak the “truth” of nature:

For the first time in history, the West could occupy, alone, the position of undeniable center, without this center having a particular ethnic group as its origin. This was indeed precisely what enabled the difference to be established between “them”—prisoners inside the narrow confines of their cultures, incapable of grasping the unifying principles of nature—and “us,” who evidently possessed more or less emphasized cultural traits, but whose hidden strength was to have reached, thanks to Science, Technology and Economics’ slow work of erosion, the rock bottom of universality, the hard core of nature, the backdrop of any history. (13)

To move beyond this “war of the worlds,” Latour argues that we must recognize that the conflict is not about idealist values conducted within the “real” single and shared world of nature controlled by the West, but about the construction of the world. By establishing its ontology—of Science and Nature—as being beyond the negotiable, the West has refused to truly negotiate with its others, just as those involved in Aramis’s construction refuse to negotiate certain design parameters. In the nonmodern Constitution, “nobody can constitute the unity of the world for anybody else, as used to be the case (in the times of modernism and later post-modernism), that is, by generously offering to let the others in, on condition that they leave at the door all that is dear to them: their gods, their souls, their objects, their times and their spaces, in short, their ontology” (30). Peace will become possible, Latour suggests, when we acknowledge that the negotiation is really among proponents of different common worlds; that the negotiation is about what common world we might collectively create; that the West must admit aspects of others’ ontologies and relinquish aspects of its own. When we recognize that all is a shared world continually in the process of construction, the only question left is whether it is constructed well (admitting most voices to its collective) or poorly (unified too early). Bizarrely, Latour suggests that Religion, like Nature or Science, is a collective that would better achieve its goals were it to negotiate with other constructions of divinity: “The all powerful already existing absolute God sends his devout to holy war, but what about the relative God which might be unified in the slowly constructed future?” (46). Somehow, Wells’s War of the Worlds (1898), in which bacterial actants in a terrestrial collective preserve the planet’s autonomy, seems more likely.
                10. Latour’s anti-Marxism is at its most sustained and explicit in Reassembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor-Network-Theory (2005), in which he effectively forbids to critical analysis the use of any preformed social category, such as class.

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Collins, Chik. Language, Ideology and Social Consciousness: Developing a Sociohistorical Approach. Aldershot, UK: Ashgate, 1999.
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Haraway, Donna. “A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century.” 1985. Rev. Simians, Cyborgs, and Women: The Reinvention of Nature. New York: Routledge, 1991. 149-81.
Latour, Bruno. Aramis or The Love of Technology. 1993. Trans. Catherine Porter. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1996.     
─────. Pandora’s Hope: Essays on the Reality of Science Studies. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1999.
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Mendlesohn, Farah. “Corporatism and the Corporate Ethos in Robert Heinlein’s ‘The Roads Must Roll.’” Speaking Science Fiction: Dialogues and Interpretations. Ed. Andy Sawyer and David Seed. Liverpool: Liverpool UP, 2000. 146-57.
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Westfahl, Gary. The Mechanics of Wonder: The Creation of the Idea of Science Fiction. Liverpool: Liverpool UP, 1998.

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